May 19 2013

Mastery Learning

Relly Brandman, Course Operations MOOC Pedagogy Specialist at Coursera (who also wins ‘Most Awesome Title of the Week’ honors), has an interesting post at Coursera’s blog titled 5 Tips: Learn more effectively in class with Mastery Learning.

Brandman outlines the benefits of a Mastery Learning approach for participants in Coursera titles. Three things immediately leap out:

  1. There isn’t anything revolutionary here. It does, however, provide insights into how Coursera expects participants to interact with their content (or perhaps, hopes would be more accurate).
  2. Brandman’s post makes it clear that the onus for undertaking a Mastery Learning approach in the context of Coursera is self-directed. That is, it isn’t Coursera mandating this. Rather, they are advocating it. (The post is, after all, a set of tips for using Mastery Learning techniques.)
  3. It was refreshing to see some preliminary metrics on the benefits for students employing a Mastery Learning approach. Unfortunately, Brandman only provided data for a single course, and that data seemed to be a bit of a stretch. Specifically, it is difficult to draw significant conclusions from performance on a test based on previous performance without knowing exactly what’s in each test. It would be informative to have a broader sample of classes and some more robust methods for collecting and analyzing the data. Even better would be to establish an actual control group (as Bloom had in his original study). Admittedly, this isn’t necessarily Coursera’s research to undertake (though, it’s something I would be keen to do if were a MOOC Pedagogy Specialist.)

What I’m most interested in, of course, is how we use technology to move beyond Bloom’s one sigma of Mastery Learning and seek to achieve the two sigmas of individual tutoring. Or, as Bloom asked “… can researchers and teachers devise teaching-learning conditions that will enable the majority of students under group instruction to attain levels of achievement that can, at present, be reached only under good tutoring conditions?” The critical balance for any eLearning delivery, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), will be to determine how we can personalize the learning experience. Student-to-student interaction and communities have an important role to play (this is, of course, a central tenant of a connectivist pedagological approach). Brandman and Coursera’s emphasis on the responsibility of the student becomes even more relevant, whether or not Coursera is taking a connectivist approach to their courses. Ultimately, this is true no matter the learning environment: whether Coursera or otherwise, whether institutional or corporate. The need for students to take responsibility for their own learning, however, amplifies in the online context. You can lead a student to content, but you can’t make them learn.

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